Kamala Khan Shows Us that We’ve Been Giving Lip Service to Inclusivity
I’m an admitted comic book junkie. I love the exploration of a humanity without physical limits but still riddled with the complexities of emotion. When I heard that Ms. Marvel was coming to the small screen, I was cautiously excited. Sure, there have been some spot-on comic book adaptations but there have also been some serious misses (DC’s interpretation of Wonder Woman lost a lot of what makes the character a brilliant role model for all genders). After watching the first episode of a live action Kamala Khan, it was obvious that Marvel had not only hit the mark but had exceeded my expectations.
What makes Ms. Marvel genius is that while, yes, it’s a superhero story with action, powers, and costumes, that’s secondary. The show spends more of its energy investigating the powerful dynamic of individual expression, family, and tradition against the rich backdrop of Muslim faith and Pakistani-American culture. It brings Islam to many people for whom it remains exotic and unknown and shows that the faith is not only relatable but beautiful and awe-inspiring. It reinforces that Marvel has remained steadfast in giving voice to minorities in the US, even in the face of its mostly male, white readership.
Every actor on Ms. Marvel is wonderful, but the ones who steal the show are Iman Vellani as the titular character and Zenobia Shroff as Kamala’s mother, Muneeba. Kamala’s desire to stretch beyond the boundaries of the status quo is palpable and I want her to find her voice. But I also fully empathize with Muneeba’s instinct to guide and protect her daughter. It’s a dynamic that transcends culture and religion, and this is one of the best examples I’ve seen. I’m constantly rooting for both characters, in both the poignant and tense moments.
On a conceptual level, the show deftly mixes philosophy and religion with daily life. I’ve studied a fair amount of Islamic philosophy, but Ms. Marvel makes it real. It’s no easy feat to make the sublime mundane, but here it’s done effortlessly. Glimpses into daily life in the mosque, Nakia’s celebration of the hajib, Sana’s comic inability to use FaceTime that doesn’t detract from her wisdom. These are powerful reminders that interwoven throughout our differences are even more unifying threads.
This is what inclusivity and representation should do. Give us a jolt so we realize that what looked like separation is simply a tonal variation, a different way of expressing truth that is vibrant and valid.
Ms. Marvel also chooses to impart knowledge, by contextualizing the partition of India and the sweeping repercussions that it caused. I had heard of partition but couldn’t profess to know much beyond the basic facts. Muneeba’s narrative hits home – up to 20 million people displaced along religious lines, with a minimum of hundreds of thousands of lives lost. The scale of the tragedy is overwhelming, and Ms. Marvel doesn’t shy away from the suffering.
Even the shows tackling of the djinn has a message – don’t let what you think you know color your viewpoint. I’m hoping that the characters in Ms. Marvel can teach us that we should challenge our inherent biases, uproot them, and plant ideas where inclusivity isn’t politically correct, but something we desperately long and strive for.
Ms. Marvel has done what films, television shows, and brands should do – recognize that inclusivity cannot exist without authenticity. Yes, I want to see a diverse array of faces, ethnicities, gender expressions, ages, and body types to show that beauty is more than thin, white, and young. But even more I want to know people’s truth. Their stories. This is a moment to say that while we’re making progress it’s woefully inadequate. And that might be because we’re checking off boxes in the inclusivity project rather than getting to know the richness and depth of the very people we’re showcasing.
With one episode of Ms. Marvel left, I’m not ready to say goodbye to Kamala Khan. But maybe she can be our ideal – the call for our society to deepen what inclusivity and representation mean. Because if there’s one thing we need, it’s a lot less partitions between us.